Call this the Idiot’s Guide to World Cup Qualifying. The diehard American Outlaws probably know this information by heart. Casual fans may know some of them. Most general sports fans in America will only tune in to football if the United States men’s national team makes it to the World Cup, meaning it will take more than eight years for some to actively watch the red, white, and blue jerseys wear with no stars above the American top. The women’s team has four (which stands for World Cup titles).
Long story short, the current crop of American men is in solid shape to push through to Qatar. Their status could and should be better, but could also be so much worse, as evidenced by missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia after losing to Trinidad & Tobago, this round didn’t even progress to the final stage of qualifying. Most of the crew members are figures from the past. The core of this US team is younger, has more experience abroad and seems to have more hunger for success on the field than the groups in recent WCQ cycles.
The largest remnant of that group is Christian Pulisic, who was 19 years old when the last WCQ cycle ended. Voted the greatest American football player ever, he led a new generation into the spotlight, the next arrival of Landon Donovan but better, with the patriotic shield for American men’s football symbolizing his literal nickname: ‘Captain America’. He will be 24 if (when) the US enters the group stage of the 2022 World Cup, maturing the same way Chris Evans did when he went from the Human Torch to Steve Rogers. Other talented names such as Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah and Sergiño Dest are also names you should know. I probably shouldn’t just look over them and the unnamed footy specialists. If (when) the US plays in Qatar, we’ll have plenty of time to get back to it.
Four World Cup qualifying windows have been created, one to go in CONCACAF. There are still three games to go before the eight teams participating in the octagonal qualification method know their international fate for the first time. The top trio go straight to Qatar, fourth place goes to a play-off against the best of the Oceania Football Confederation, likely New Zealand, while Australia participates in the Asian federation.
The bottom four get nothing. All tough match days and travel across North America, to try again for the FIFA World Cup 2026, which will be hosted by Canada, Mexico and United States. Two teams already know they’re out – Honduras and Jamaica – and El Salvador will need a massive effort and other results over the last three matchdays at the end of March to also avoid a top prize of nothing.
The magical number of points needed by the US to book a ticket to Qatar in November is six, which means it also needs five points to get a place in the top half and guarantee the trip doesn’t end. on March 30 in Costa Rica. The team currently in fourth place is Panama, the only home opponent left for the US in this 14-game round-robin gauntlet. Simply put, a victory on March 27 in Orlando against Los Canaleros brings the magic number to zero in the clash with Panama. Should Costa Rica lose a single point in fifth place to Canada or from a road race against El Salvador, the trip to San Jose to finish this leg of WCQ on March 30 would be irrelevant to the Americans’ chances of winning a of the 32 teams at the World Cup. They would be in.
It’s weird to say that the Americans’ first match of the last window, March 24, against bitter rival Mexico from Estadio Azteca, one of the American rolodex’s selective matchups, doesn’t carry more weight. It’s obvious to play against your biggest rival, who hasn’t beaten the US in this exact match since 2009, three cycles ago, after two draws in Mexico City and all in all since 2019 after three consecutive competitive losses in 2021.
There are almost two months to refresh all that. The truth is that with the resources the American Football Federation has, failing to qualify for the World Cup in any cycle is a catastrophic failure. Mexico, and this best generation of Canadians ever, should be the only countries in North America that come close to the quality of the US right now. Losing points in previous road races in San Salvador and Kingston, coupled with horrendous performances in Panama City and on Sunday in Ontario, have left the Americans waiting until the last minute to qualify, unlike during their last successful qualifying session in 2013.
So why provide this information the day after the last game and the next seven weeks? Football should only get more support in the run-up to the re-hosting of a World Cup. It helped the creation of MLS. The effect the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup had on this country is still being felt in a tidal wave of top US talent. Where would Pulisic rank among the best players in the world? Probably higher than any American, although his form at Chelsea has deteriorated in recent months, but it still doesn’t move the international needle like a leading athlete from this country should. However, he and this talented batch of youngsters have time to change that.
Part of the reason this qualifying process is so important is because most of these players should not only be around for the next one or two cycles, but many players have not yet reached their peak. This is the best possible dress rehearsal. That next game against Mexico? Of last night’s starters in a 3-0 win over Honduras, only Kellyn Acosta played in the final World Cup qualifier against El Tri. Pulisic got off the bench last night to score a goal in St. Paul, Minnesota. He played in Mexico City. Jordan Morris started last night at Pulisic’s usual spot. He stayed on the bench for that June 2017 showdown, but was allowed to take Estadio Azteca as a consolation.
Now the vast majority of critical players can experience the picturesque setting with a small safety net, provided they manage things and avoid Hindenburg’s collapse against Panama. As a result, they will be back on the international stage until they automatically have a qualifying spot as hosts in four years. History should not repeat itself. Avoiding a Titanic sequel is a must. If serving US Soccer in 2018 was a huge step backwards, imagine the results if this group of players didn’t have a chance to earn their spot outright until 2030. That’s a heavy bet for one game. But again, it’s exactly the pressure the Americans should feel for a World Cup.